Celebrating Lesiure on Labor Day

Feast of St Mammas the Martyr

Square_2-An-Old-Scholar.jpegEVERY YEAR, Americans take advantage of an always desired yet rarely granted Monday off work by heading to the lake one last time, firing up the grill in homage to the unofficial end of summer, or perhaps by trying to complete a lingering project from their Memorial Day “to do” list. But as we observe this treasured national holiday in whatever way we choose, how many of us really consider what a day bearing the name of “Labor” is prompting us to celebrate? While any day off work seems like an automatic tribute to free time, the history of Labor Day suggest something different. 

Originating in the late 19th century amidst rising industrialization in America, Labor Day is said to be founded by two men: Peter McGuire, of the American Federation of Labor, and Matthew Maguire, of the Central Labor Union. Pro-labor groups, such as those to whom these men belonged, were organized to fight for the rights of workers—those who toil, without ownership, for the profit of others; taking home wages, rather than property, as their compensation. Pope Leo XIII, while pleading for recognition of rights due to workers, also recognized that labor itself is a consequence of human imperfection; a manifestation of cosmic economical dysfunction caused by original sin. In his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, written just a few years after the first Labor Day celebrations were being observed in the United States, Leo stated: “As regards bodily labor, even had man never fallen from the state of innocence, he would not have remained wholly idle; but that which would then have been his free choice and his delight became afterwards compulsory, and the painful expiation for his disobedience” (paragraph 17).

At this point it seems necessary to make some clarification in language. I do not use the term “labor” simply as a synonym for “work”. The term “labor” in an economic sense suggests specifically the exchange of servile work (most commonly suggestive of more mechanical and less creative types of work) for compensation in the form of wages. Classification as labor may or may not tell us a thing about the difficulty of any given occupation, or about the mental or physical strain associated with it. Likewise, the term “work” may refer to any number of activities of various levels of difficulty, importance, and pleasantness. The “work” of leisure, for example, can be, and most often is, difficult. In their book, The Capitalist Manifesto, Louis Kelso and Mortimer Adler state: “the central task of liberal education, in school and out, must be to cultivate the virtues that prepare men for the work of leisure—work that is both harder and better than the drudgery of toil” (pg. 248). It is this work of leisure which satisfies our desire to be productive, and it is the sort of work necessary to create culture. “Civilization, as opposed to subsistence, is produced by those who have free time and use it creatively—to develop the liberal arts and sciences and all the institutions of the state and of religion” (pg. 17).

The Labor Day holiday seems to have been created to do exactly what the name suggests: to celebrate servile labor itself, not the absence of servile labor (which is a prerequisite condition for free time). A day off in observance of Labor Day seems to be an almost artificial insertion into our lives of labor; a paradoxical attempt to celebrate both free time and labor simultaneously (which would be a contradiction in terms). Labor Day is an annual reminder of the sad condition of a nation consisting, by vast majority, of people totally dependent on wages rather than ownership of productive property. We work for other people because we can’t afford not to, and we perpetuate our condition by spending all of our wages, or even exceeding our wages through the use of credit, therefore perpetuating the cycle indefinitely. Labor Day reminds us that, although we can at least have one day off, we are still chained to labor. 

I, for one, do not want to celebrate labor. I want to celebrate leisure. And I want to celebrate it not just because it is fun, but because it is important. To celebrate labor is like celebrating a fever. Both are common to the human experience, and even necessary in an imperfect world; required processes meant to remove an intrusion to our overall wellness. Both signify by their very existence that something is amiss. While we bear our labor, as we would a fever, with a sort of calm familiarity when it is of tolerable intensity, we do so in eager expectation of its passing; and we know that once it gives way we will be better off than while we were afflicted, or at least annoyed, by it. Leisure, on the other hand, is the healthy state of functioning we all desire.   

Our primary sin in our idolatrous exaltation of labor is that we see it as something itself desirable, rather than as something endured so that we may gain something greater. Labor, in itself, is undesirable. It is in the post-labor state that we truly flourish, and it is in this state that we can truly be of service to our society. Kelso and Adler put it this way:

We look upon economic activity as an end rather than as a means. We express this attitude by the way in which we subordinate to economic activity the much more important and difficult creative activities that lie outside the sphere of the production of wealth—the activities of politics, religion, the fine arts, pure science, philosophy, teaching, etc. We express this misguided tendency in our disdain for men who, with adequate income from capital property, do not continue to engage in one or another form of subsistence work. We express it when we speak of the cessation of subsistence work as retirement, as thought when the task of providing enough wealth for economic security is completed, the main purpose of human life has been accomplished.

The Capitalist Manifesto (New York: Random House, 1958), pg. 159

Labor is undesirable for two major reasons. Firstly, to a certain degree, it is subhuman to be a laborer. We are naturally made for and desire ownership: it is consistent with our human dignity and creative nature. Secondly, any attempt at earning money (which labor, in this sense, is wholly dedicated to) should only be a goal as long as it remains a necessity for the pursuit and sustenance of an adequate lifestyle. Once that lifestyle of peaceful security has been gained and can be maintained without further pursuit of wages, our efforts should instead be directed toward the higher goals of life in service of the flourishing of our families and, by extension, the cultures in which we live. According to Kelso and Adler, “While men without property cannot live well, not all men with property do live well, but only those who, understanding the difference between labor and leisure, direct their activities to the goals of the free life” (pg. 16).

With our work-centered mentality, leisure is given little attention. And even that tends to be swallowed up into the larger focus on productivity. Leisure, of some form, is allowed and even promoted, but only as a means to guarantee more productivity in its wake. Workers are encouraged to take their provided “holidays”, but the purpose of those holidays has become more about coming back to work a more productive employee than about coming back to work a more complete human being. Leisure, in this case, becomes merely a tool of production rather than what it is intended to be: an authentic expression of humanity. Abstinence from work is not only an opportunity for rest and renewal, but is truly an act of worship itself; recognizing the providence of our creator and the dignity he has bestowed upon us.

So by all means, we should enjoy our Labor Day holiday and our day off work, whatever our line of work may be. But as we do so, perhaps we should consider what we are actually observing and why we are observing it. If we are just celebrating a day that we don’t have to work, perhaps we should reevaluate the way in which we work and the goals of the work we do. And if we find that we are unsatisfied with our condition of labor, perhaps we should begin celebrating leisure instead.


Dusty Gates currently serves as the Director of Adult Education at the Spiritual Life Center for the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, KS, and as an adjunct Professor of Theology at Newman University in Wichita, KS, where he resides with his wife and two children.

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